This second Captain America movie is a big departure in terms of tone from Captain America: The First Avenger, which released three years ago, but as part of Marvel's Phase Two for the Avengers, it fits in with the general theme of things getting a little darker, and a little more serious than the first few movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which seemed to be painted in bright primary colours.
Iron Man 3 was a darker take on Tony Stark dealing with PTSD, while Thor: The Dark World sees both of Thor's parents killed. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a good fit with these movies, and continues to build the mythology of the Marvel Universe and building up a bigger world while telling its own story. (Warning, minor spoilers follow throughout the rest of the review. If you want to go in without anything revealed, come back and read this after watching...)
The film starts stylishly enough with an early scene being a commando raid on a ship that has been taken over by pirates. The commandos are led by Captain America (Chris Evans), but they're carrying assault rifles and shooting their targets down without warning. Even Captain America is shown fighting brutally - in the first few minutes of the movie, he throws a knife through the hand of one of the pirates, pinning him to the wall before knocking him out.
The scene sets the tone for the movie and it also highlights something else. Captain America is not a near unstoppable flying brick like Thor or Iron Man, who need superhuman enemies to feel threatened. Steve Rogers is much stronger and faster than other people after the experiments that made him Captain America, but he's still human, and can be threatened.
The movie plays out like a spy thriller set during the Cold War - if you grew up watching such movies in the 90s, then the story beats and lighting are both familiar tropes. This further helps heighten the sense that bad things are going to happen, and while the big reveal - that SHIELD has been compromised by Robert Redford's Secretary Pierce - is telegraphed almost from the start, the exact moment when this is revealed is still shocking.
The crux of the film revolves around three new helicarriers that are to replace the one which was downed during The Avengers; the new ships are armed to the teeth and can kill hostiles through predictive algorithms - "to kill the bad guys before they can even get out of their spider-holes", as Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) puts it. And of course, the initiative is hijacked by Hydra, the terrorist organisation which we first saw in The First Avenger, to kill those individuals that Hydra sees as a threat to their perfect world order.
Complicating things in all this is the Winter Soldier - a legend among mercenaries, an assassin who has been operational for five decades. Anyone who's read the comic books knows the history of the Winter Soldier, but the connection between him and Captain America is also made clear through the story, with flashbacks and a visit to the Captain America exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum, where the scene lingers on a memorial to Bucky Barnes.
When Rogers and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are being hunted by SHIELD, they've got to piece together clues and figure out what's going on. They get help from PTSD counsellor Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who happens to be the pilot of a "Falcon" winged-flying suit. There are some great spy-movie moments in this part of the film, as the plot moves forward.
At the same time, the movie still kept its sense of humour. There's one particularly great moment involving the voice controlled computer in Nick Fury's car which instantly defuses a particularly tense moment, and makes this feel like a movie that can exist side by side with Thor and Iron Man.
What makes the film work, despite the conjunction of superhero action and gritty spy movie themes is how tight each scene is. Even the action sequences feel real - when the Winter Soldier and Captain America first face off, there's an amazing sequence of Rogers running straight through an office building, knocking his way past walls, emphasising his superhuman strength. This is followed by another moment from the trailers, where he hurls his shield at the Winter Soldier... who almost casually catches it in his metal hand and hurls it back.
In fact, there's a sense of wonderful physicality to the action - there are a lot of toys and fancy gadgets in play, but the most memorable moments are the scenes of hand to hand combat between the Winter Soldier and Captain America.
However, at 2 hours and 15 minutes, this is a long film, and by the end it starts to overstay its welcome. The final sequence with the helicarriers should have been a powerful climax, but compared to the hand to hand fighting, felt anaemic and dragged out.
The actors all largely lived up to the roles they had, though Colbie Smulders' Agent Maria Hill felt a little needless in the movie, and Johansson's Black Widow was stuck with too many sarcastic one liners and not much more beyond beating people up.
For comic book geeks though, the movie delivers, despite perhaps needing a bit of a trim. A lot of the extra material that a broader audience might not care about added a lot of value. A casual throwaway dialogue where Agent Jasper Sitwell (who might be familiar to viewers of Agents of SHIELD on TV) mentioning Stephen Strange in the same breath as Bruce Banner holds up a world of possibility. The Falcon had a small part in this movie, Anthony Mackie was instantly likeable in the role, and will hopefully be used more in future films.
There are tips of the hat, frequent references to Iron Man, and the post-credits scene is linked to Avengers: Age of Ultron. All these little Easter eggs will keep the fans happy, but aside from all that, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a solidly enjoyable action movie, even if it does slow down towards the end.